She cultivated an air of mystery. Except for giving two possible dates for her birth—1649 and 1694—Patience refused to locate herself in time other than in the “here.” Her reticence extended to other questions about her life on earth. After suggesting that she’d been killed by an Indian, she was asked what tribe her killer belonged to. “Would ye with a blade at thy throat seek the [affiliation] of thine assassin?” she replied.
Over time, however, she let slip some key personal details. Patience hinted that she’d come from Portesham in Dorsetshire, England, near where Thomas Hardy was born in 1840. She never mentioned her father but said her mother had worked as a seamstress for a nobleman’s family. She indicated that she had been buried on Nantucket and that a tree had grown out of her dust.
Sometimes, Pearl said, she had sharp visions of Patience. In one, she saw Patience as a slight, pretty woman dressed in a flowing gray cape as she galloped on horseback with other riders toward a huge three-masted ship docked at a landing. When the riders reached the dock, Patience pushed back her hood, and, Pearl said, showed her face: she was about 30, much younger than Pearl had thought, with large brown eyes, a determined mouth and masses of deep red hair that tumbled around her shoulders in lustrous waves.
Occasionally, Patience’s recollections of her girlhood were so vivid they seemed to have been lifted from the diary of a 17th-century English maid. “Well I remember a certain church,” she once dictated, “with its wee windows and its prim walls, with its sanctity and meekness, with its aloofness and chilling godliness. Well I remember the Sabbath and its quietude of uneasiness, wherein the creaking of the wood was an infernalism, the droning and scuffing of the menfolk’s shoes and the rustle of the clothes of the dames and maids, the squeaking of the benches, and the drowsy humming of some busy bee who broke the Sabbath’s law. Aye, well I remember the heat that foretold the wrath of God, making the Good Man [the parson] sweat. Aye, and Heaven seemed far, far.”
So alive was Patience’s language that many of those who sat with Pearl at the Ouija board felt they could see the gestures and facial expressions accompanying her words. “Patience Worth is arch and coquettish with a mind of no small power and altogether loveable,” wrote William Marion Reedy, editor of the Mirror, one of the nation’s leading journals of opinion and literary criticism. The overweight editor started out a skeptic, but quickly fell in thrall to this glib, hyper-literate personality, who affectionately called him “Fatawide.” He had “learned to love her as a person more real than many whose hands I grasp,” he confessed in the Mirror.
Before Patience, Pearl Curran’s life had the feel of a tightly laced corset, one that over the years had narrowed and grown more constrained. Born in Mound City, Illinois, in 1883, she was the only child of George Pollard, an itinerant railroad employee and newspaperman, and his high-strung, ambitious wife, Mary. The Pollards moved a great deal—from Illinois to southern Missouri to Texas—as Pollard sought better-paying jobs. Pearl’s mother was extremely distressed by her husband’s inability to provide a stable living and, after she had a nervous breakdown when Pearl was 4, sent her daughter to live for a while with the child’s grandmother in St. Louis.
Though not a good student, Pearl was remembered by a childhood friend as a great talker who “loved to tell jokes or funny stories about people.” What’s more, she had a good memory, and the letters she wrote were full of lively descriptions. From an early age Pearl showed an interest in music, which her mother encouraged. The family’s meager resources were poured into Pearl’s piano, singing, acting and elocution lessons. Pearl went along with it, she said, because she wanted “to lift myself out of a hopeless future.” But at 13, she had what was termed a nervous collapse and dropped out of school.
Throughout this troubled girlhood, Pearl’s only known connection to spiritualism came when she went to live briefly in Chicago with an uncle who was the minister of a storefront spiritualist church, and, according to one family member, “an arch faker.” Pearl played piano in the church, where services revolved around attempts to contact the dead, but she “didn’t like the crowd that came, and the whole thing was repulsive to me,” she would recall later.
Desperate to become a singer, Pearl worked at shops in Chicago and then at Marshall Field’s department store to pay for voice lessons. She kept them up until at 24 she married John Curran, a widowed immigration official and sometime businessman 12 years her senior. In 1908 the newlyweds moved to St. Louis, which was pulsing with prosperity. The nation’s top producer of beer and a manufacturing center for leather goods, St. Louis boasted four daily newspapers, sumptuous mansions and beautiful parks.
Not since the Civil War had there been such interest in spiritualism, which had been born in the United States in 1848 when two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, claimed to have contacted a dead peddler through telegraphic rapping in their upstate New York farmhouse. Soon, scores of self-anointed mediums (including their sister Leah) burst on the scene, most of them women, whose passivity and purity, it was believed, made them ideal vessels to receive news from the Other Side.